Every content creator knows what it’s like to deal with writer’s block. You feel as if you simply can’t string two words together. It’s a horrible feeling, especially if you’re expected to maintain a high output of content.
This condition isn't all in your head -- writer’s block is a real issue. Whether you write romance novels or technical blogs, you can get it. And when you suddenly have it, you somehow have to get through it.
Since marketers are also writers, this article will give you more information writer's block, and help you to overcome it.
1) Keep reading.
If you don’t read much, you won’t get much better at writing. In his essay on “How Language Really Works,” Dan Kurland explains. “Reading is primary. One can write only as well as one reads.” Knowing how to restate a concept, describe a concept, and interpret that text are the foundational skills of an effective reader and, for this reason, are the skills of an effective writer as well.
Ray Bradbury, the writer of Fahrenheit 451 and other notable novels, summed up his writing advice like this: “Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.” Writer Jeff Goins says the same thing: “Writers need to read if they want to be good.”
And let’s round out the quotes with a zinger from Stephen King:
Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
It’s not just more reading in vast quantities that will help. It’s reading the right kind of stuff -- good stuff. You imitate what you read. So choose carefully. Don’t let this paralyze you from choosing all kinds of things, however. One of the best sources of reading material is stuff that’s different from what you normally read. Belle Cooper writes at the Buffer Blog, “Read things you hadn’t thought about reading.”
When you write, you are strengthening your writing muscle. This muscle grows stronger with every word you type out. You strengthen the same mental muscles when you read. The stronger your writing muscle, the less likely you are to succumb to writer’s block.
Keep reading, and you’ll be able to sustain the motivation required to write.
2) Keep writing.
This one sounds counterintuitive because if you’re blocked then you can’t write, right?
Let me explain. There are two ways to force yourself to keep writing. The first method is through sheer willpower. The second method is by force of habit.
Use your willpower.
You have to force yourself to write. You’re going to experience block. You’re going to run into a wall. But you still have to sit down and write.
Many fiction writers make the mistake of waiting for “inspiration” whatever that is. The problem is, inspiration doesn’t merely waft in from the ether and strike you with its magical power.
You have to work for it. More aggressively, you have to fight for it. Like Jack London wrote, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Screenwriter and author Joss Whedon described the process of writing and editing this way: “It’s brutal.” Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes it’s hard, but you have to push through.
That sounds kind of ruthless doesn’t it? It is. J.K. Rowling expressed it like this: “Be ruthless about protecting writing days.” It probably took a degree of ruthlessness for Rowling to produce over a million words in the Harry Potter series.
Ride the force of habit.
Willpower has its limits. Research from the American Psychological Association points to evidence (Baumeister, 1998; Gailliot, 2007; Martijn, 2002) that the human psyche can only exercise so much willpower before it gives in.
The brain requires fuel (glucose) for willpower, which is quickly depleted. In addition, certain sections of the brain like the anterior cingulate cortex become fatigued by the pressure of constant willpower.
We have a finite amount of willpower available. Simply put, when we use it up by resisting a chocolate doughnut all morning, there’s none left to stay disciplined in our writing an hour later. The 'willpower tank' has to refill before we can use it again.
What do you have to rely on if not willpower?
The J.K. Rowling quote above doesn’t stop. Rowling went on to advise writers to protect their writing days.
If someone has “writing days” then it implies that they have habits -- a writing routine.
Here’s a popular quotation, attributed to the writer William Faulkner:
I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.
This quote implies two things. First, it implies that inspiration is overrated. Second, it implies that the only real source of inspiration is habit. You will write most effectively if you have a habit of writing. Here is what I advise:
- Set specific days that you will write. I recommend writing every day except weekends. You can choose the days that work best with your schedule.
- Set a specific time that you will write. Protect this as you would an important meeting.
- Create the right conditions for writing. The habit loop requires the creation of a routine. Whether it’s getting coffee, opening the blinds or turning on your favorite Pandora station, find a routine that works for you. Then, stick with your routine. The routine will turn into a stimulus that sparks your creativity and helps you write.
An article in 99U describes how Stephen King uses the force of habit and routine to become so incredibly productive:
Everyday between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. writer Stephen King arrives at his desk with a cup of tea. He turns on some music, takes his daily vitamin, and begins to work -- exactly as he began the day before. Using this routine, King has produced well over 50 books, averaging 1-2 novels a year since 1974 when he published Carrie. Clearly, daily routines can be incredibly valuable.
Habits are foundational to productivity. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” You will create excellence and productivity as a blogger or writer by following routines and building habits.
When you form a habit, it becomes nearly effortless to carry it out.
3) Give yourself permission to daydream.
Daydreaming is a form of free association. Free association, as a psychoanalytic theory, happens when one word or image may spontaneously suggest another without any apparent connection.
Free association may be effective in psychoanalysis, but it’s also effective in freeing up writer’s block. The body's neural circuitry can be trained to stick to well-worn pathways. Sometimes, these pathways can be clogged. Where ideas once came, there are no more ideas. Where writing once flowed, there is no more flow.
By thinking freely -- let’s call it daydreaming -- you can reset these neural pathways. That’s why writers such as Thoreau and Wordsworth were so passionate about long and leisurely walks through nature. The walks gave them the ability to think without inhibition.
Such thinking is essential to full continuous writing. If your neural pathway becomes blocked, start daydreaming. You may, like Agatha Christie, discover that “the best time for planning [writing] is while you’re doing the dishes.”
4) Take a break.
Taking a break from writing is risky, but sometimes necessary. I only advise it in extreme situations of writer’s block. Why? Because it’s important to protect routine.
There may come a time, however, when your body and mind demand a break. Often, it’s personal circumstances -- family, relationships, job, crisis, etc. -- that require a respite. Other times, it’s just that your writing has become worn out and weak.
Taking time to recharge could be essential to your continued success and ability as a writer. One popular writing blog, TheWritePractice.com, tells writers to take a break “when you get stuck, and forcing it doesn’t work.”
Another gem of advice puts it like this:
Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is not write. There are going to be times when our brains are fried, our imaginations are dried up, and our lives are demanding we put non-writing priorities first. In these situations, is it ever acceptable to just surrender and throw down the pen for a while? My answer is absolutely. In fact, sometimes it’s wise to deliberately plan to stop writing.
Admit that you’re worn out, that the well is dry. There are legitimate limits to your output. Respect them. Step back for a while. Then go back and do it again.
Here’s my personal advice on taking breaks from writing:
- Don’t quit for good. Be careful that your break doesn’t become permanent. Be aware, and defend against the temptation to just stop forever.
- Take daily breaks.
- Don’t take a break longer than a month. There’s no perfect length for a writing sabbatical. Some writers stop writing for a year. Some pause for a day. How long should you stop? I would recommend that your longest break be no more than a month. Going longer than a month has the potential of undermining the writing habits that you’ve formed.
I’ve discovered that after taking a break, not only do I break through writer’s block, but I also become a better writer.
5) Get help on the details.
You don’t have to be a good grammarian or a wordsmith in order to be a good writer. You just have to be able to put thoughts on paper in a coherent way.
What about all the important details like commas, spelling, etc.? You can get help. You can hire an editor or proofreader to get your article publication-ready.
Whenever I write, I follow a process that keeps me from burning out on a single post. Here’s the rough process:
- Generate topics, and let them sit until I’m ready to write on them.
- Write the entire article in a single sitting. This takes anywhere from an hour to two hours, depending on how long the article is. I sometimes get assistance on the research.
- Do a quick review of the article to make sure that it says what I want it to say.
- Hand it off to a copyeditor who will make sure that my arguments are strong, my expressions are fluid, and my spelling and grammar aren’t completely wonky.
- Have a proofreader carefully comb through the article for any details that the copyeditor or I missed.
- Someone else such as an editor or blog manager puts the article into the right format so it can be published.
6) Read or do something different.
Every writer is a creative. I don’t care how technical your field is. If you’re putting words on a page, then you are creating something.
How do you become more creative? You fill your mind with more of the building blocks of creativity. The building blocks of creativity are experiences -- things that you read, see, hear, do, or otherwise participate in.
Leo Babauta, the author of Zen to Done and The Power of Less created a list of things he does to chase down ideas and gain more creative power. I’ve reproduced this list in my own words below.
- Read blogs.
- Read books.
- Eavesdrop on people’s conversations.
- Read magazines.
- Watch movies.
- Trawl forums.
- Look at art.
- Listen to music.
- Talk to friends.
- Participate in writing groups.
- Look up motivating quotes from Writing Quotes and Quotes for Writers.
- Talk a walk preferably in nature.
- Read history.
- Travel somewhere new.
- Play with children.
- Read newspapers.
- Write down your dreams (actual dreams you have when you sleep).
- Keep a writing journal.
- Read poetry.
- Read Shakespeare.
- Google your ideas.
- Free write. Write anything. Just start.
- Look at pictures on Flickr.
- Do something outside of your routine.
- Read the success stories of other people.
- Watch people in a public place.
7) Don’t overthink it.
If you come up with a workable topic, just start writing. Don’t think about it. Don’t analyze it. Don’t do anything except write.
The condition of analysis paralysis happens when someone analyzes a subject so carefully that they lose their creativity. The phenomenon is especially a problem in decision-making. The individual thinks about the decision so hard and for so long, causing them to never take any action.
The same holds true for writing. Some English teachers have bemoaned the fact that the curriculum places so much emphasis on literary analysis rather than creative outlet for the students. Management consultants also point to analysis paralysis as a crippling fact in strategic planning.
To overcome this symptom of writer’s block, it helps to turn off the analysis and turn on the creativity. Don’t do another minute of research. Simply start writing. It’s likely that your expertise in the area will fuel your writing ability. Later, when the structure of your article is in place, you can do the necessary research and citing of sources.
If none of these tips don’t help you break through your block, that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t try to follow someone else’s formula for clearing the blockage.
W. Somerset Maugham, a British playwright, said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Be a rule breaker or a rule maker, whichever comes easier. Whatever your current block is, you’ll get through it. Most likely, you’ll be a better writer on the other side.
What techniques do you have for breaking writer’s block?
Originally published Mar 16, 2015 6:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017